Although Bosnia and Herzegovina hopes to join the EU one day, political infighting between Serb, Muslim and Croat communities is threatening to derail the country from its path towards European integration.

Overview

Situated at the heart of the Western Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) experienced the worst of the ethno-nationalist fighting that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, suffering large-scale death and destruction in a complex war, the implications of which still very much resonate today.

Following BiH's declaration of independence in 1992, a bitter conflict ensued between Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, claiming 100,000 lives. Eventual international military intervention under UN auspices culminated in a NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, which led to the Dayton Agreement that created the current constitution and geopolitical structure of BiH.

The conflict involved ethnic cleansing and a number of atrocities were committed – worst of all the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, when an estimated 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by the army of the Republika Srpska and other paramilitary units, despite the presence of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers in the area.

BiH is officially a federation, divided into two partner entities with considerable independence: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. Each has its own government, legislature and police force, but the two come together to form a central, federal government with an eight-month rotating presidency held equally by a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb.

Responsibility for the civilian maintenance of the Dayton Agreement lies with the High Representative (HR), who has also served as the EU's Special Representative since 2002. Security and stability is maintained by an international military peacekeeping force, which transferred from NATO to the EU in 2004.

BiH borders Croatia to the north, Serbia to the east and Montenegro to the south. It has a short stretch of Adriatic coastline. Home to Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats, it has a population of 4.6 million, with Bosniaks constituting around 48%, Serbs 37% and Croats 14% of the population.

BiH's formal EU relations began in 1999, when the country was included in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for the Western Balkans. The 2000 Feira European Council confirmed the EU membership perspective of BiH, declaring that all SAP countries are ''potential candidates'' for membership.

A Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) was signed in June 2008, paving the way for eventual EU accession. Yet the process was extremely slow and arduous owing to lack of agreement between BiH's political leaders. The SAA was only reached after a three-year stalemate over key police reforms was finally resolved in the parliament in April 2008 (EurActiv 18/06/08).

The EU has expressed serious concern about the political atmosphere in the country and is appearing to lose patience. EU leaders have repeatedly warned BiH that continued infighting between Serb, Bosniak and Croat nationalists is driving the country away from the closer relationship with the Union to which its citizens aspire (EurActiv 23/10/08).

The apparent lack of will for a common future has led to concerns that the situation is turning into a frozen conflict. Through the SAP framework, the EU has firmly stated that the future of the Western Balkans lies within the Union, yet it representatives warn that the situation in BiH is threatening to create a ''black hole'' at the very heart of the region.

In May 2008, the European Commission established a visa liberalisation roadmap for citizens of BiH, as part of a wider scheme for the Western Balkans. In December 2009, BiH was excluded from the first phase of the process, along with Albania and Kosovo.

Yet on 27 May 2010, the Commission adopted proposals to lift the requirements for citizens of BiH once the country satisfies its remaining criteria – meaning that visas could be lifted by autumn this year (EurActiv 27/05/10).

Issues

Political concerns

Despite having signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU in 2008, the lack of cooperation between Bosnia and Herzegovina's (BiH) leaders and a constitutional stalemate are seriously threatening to derail the country from its EU path.

Ethnicity dominates the political arena and frequent challenges to the Dayton Agreement are made – mainly by Republika Srpska, a breakaway province which continues to claim its right to self-determination.

Since early 2008, there has been a rise in nationalist political rhetoric, while the local elections in October 2008 reconfirmed the deep ethnic divisions that exist in the country (EurActiv 06/10/08). In March 2009, outgoing EU/High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Miroslav Lajčák warned that the situation was in danger of deteriorating further.

Various attempts to reform the Dayton-era constitution and improve the functioning of BiH's institutions have failed due to widespread disagreement between the political parties. The main parties did conclude an agreement on future constitutional reform in November 2008, but no concrete progress followed this.

Talks on the future of BiH in October 2009 saw a hardening of positions among the country's Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders. In particular, the leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has been pushing for a referendum, putting in doubt the future of a multi-ethnic Bosnia (EurActiv 21/10/09).

In May, BiH Prime Minister Nikola Spiric called for the removal of the current HR/EU Special Representative, Valentin Inzko, accusing the international community envoy of destabilising the country and preventing ''legitimate progress'' among BiH's political leaders.

In response, Inzko blamed internal leaders for a ''deterioration'' of political dialogue and said that BiH remains afflicted by a lack of consensus on ‘"what sort of country it should or could be’" (EurActiv 25/05/10).

Regional issues

Owing to its bloody past and its three 'constituent peoples', BiH has a complex relationship with its Balkan neighbours. Yet since the Dayton Agreement, relations with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro have been relatively stable – with the international community helping to maintain stability and pushing for regional cooperation.

As Serbs are the majority ethnic group in the BiH province of Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a special relationship with Serbia. Republika Srpska has been hinting at secession, yet Serbia officially says it has no intention of supporting the separatists and has vowed to support the territorial integrity of BiH (EurActiv 22/02/10).

In March 2010, Serbia's parliament passed a resolution offering an apology to BiH for not doing more to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Yet Serbia has still not arrested General Ratko Mladic, the man widely held responsible (EurActiv 31/03/10). In April, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic apologised for all war crimes committed in BiH.

On 2 June 2010, an EU-Balkans summit is being held in Sarajevo, the capital of BiH. Ten years since the first conference in Zagreb, the choice of Sarajevo is seen as symbolic given the city's ethnically-rich heritage and the four-year siege during the war.

Symbolically, Sarajevo was chosen by the international community to host the Regional Cooperation Council, the successor organisation to the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe.

EU military and police presence

As well as the HR/Special Representative, the EU has two ongoing operations in BiH under the European Security and Defence Policy. Since 2003, the Union has maintained a European Union Police Mission (EUPM) in BiH and in December 2004, NATO's SFOR military peacekeeping operation was replaced by the EU's EUFOR/Operation ALTHEA.

Through mentoring, monitoring and inspecting, the EUPM has attempted to facilitate sustainable, multi-ethnic policing arrangements in BiH in line with the requirements of the Stability and Association Process. Yet internal political disagreement has slowed progress towards a single police structure and organised crime continues to prosper.

The EUFOR mission saw 6,300 troops deployed across BiH to ensure compliance with the Dayton Agreement, contribute to a safe and secure environment and assist the BiH authorities. In 2007, the Council agreed to reduce the troop strength to 2,200.

EU diplomats have said that a number of countries want to disengage from Operation ALTHEA. Yet given the rise in ethno-political tensions, EU Special Representative to BiH Valentin Inzko has warned against such a move and it appears that any decisions will wait until the outcome of the general elections in October (EurActiv 26/04/10).

EU representatives have warned BiH that it should not rush with its EU membership application before the Office of the High Representative has been closed and international peacekeepers have been sent home.

Economic prospects

The 1992-95 conflict devastated BiH's infrastructure and despite ongoing international support since the Dayton Agreement, the partition of the country and political infighting between Serbs, Muslims and Croats are shackling its economic future.

The global financial crisis has deepened the economic stagnation caused by the rival communities' inability to reform the country's dysfunctional state institutions. BiH is heavily reliant on foreign aid and in the Balkans, only Kosovo is in a worse economic situation.

However, living standards are higher in the Brčko district, which has a population of some 40,000 people and enjoys considerable autonomy in what some see as a violation of the Dayton peace accords.

Unemployment is very high in BiH – at least 25% – and economic disparities are prevalent. The country has a single market on paper, with free circulation of goods and equal rates of customs and value added tax, yet corruption within public authorities is rife and businesses often have to bribe or obey politicians to be able to operate.

The main potential for investment lies in energy and infrastructure, but political feuding and self-enrichment continue to thwart big projects. Energy investments are held up because BiH still lacks a functioning national electricity grid, despite repeated promises to remove political obstacles (EurActiv 21/04/10).

Positions

In a speech on 18 February 2010, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said that BiH can only join the EU as one country with one voice and that the EU will never accept a break-up of the state.

''Everyone in Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to join the European Union – every citizen and most elected leaders, it would seem. But the spirit of compromise to get there is plainly lacking at the political level. Let me be clear: Bosnia and Herzegovina can only join the European Union as one country, by speaking with one voice, and by respecting individual human rights and the different cultures of the constituent peoples," Ashton said.

"Politics of division and flirtations with secessionist rhetoric are as harmful as they are pointless. The EU will never accept the break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina; we look forward to seeing the country instead as a member of the EU one day, with strong entities working within a single functional state,'' she concluded.

In an interview with EurActiv in March, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle reaffirmed the European perspective of the country and stressed the need for a united, functioning BiH.

''The international community and the European Council have stressed the territorial integrity of BiH and the need for unity. The European Council has also stressed that BiH has a European perspective and the EU wants a functioning, stable country with an effective government. It is very important to move the country from a post-Dayton to a pro-European era and I hope that the elections due in October can be a step towards this.''

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, speaking for the Spanish EU Presidency in April, urged BIH's leaders to agree on constitutional reform after meeting with Sulejman Tilic of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Zlatko Lagumdzija of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Milorad Dodik of the Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) in Sarajevo.

"They all said that, after the October elections, they will work together, regardless of their political differences, towards one goal: Bosnia and Herzegovina joining the European Union and NATO," said Moratinos during a press conference in the capital. 

He said these were the "positions and messages'' he had taken away from the meetings with the main Muslim, Serb and Croat parties.

In a letter to the UN in May 2010, BiH's current Prime Minister Nikola Spiric accused HR/Special Representative Valentin Inzko of destabilising the political process in the country and called for his removal.

"Continuing foreign intervention in local political issues is destabilising and undermines the creation of a consensus [...] as well as reform efforts," said Spiric, according to AFP.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) "should be closed in order to enable Bosnian political leaders to achieve legitimate progress," he said, adding that Inzko was "contributing to non-functional governance in Bosnia".

HR/EU Special Representative Valentin Inzko, responding to Spiric's remarks, blamed political figures in BiH for a "deterioration" of political dialogue.

"While regional prospects for reconciliation have improved, the language and logic of politics inside Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to have rather deteriorated," Inzko told the UN Security Council on 24 May.

"Bosnia and Herzegovina remains afflicted by a lack of a basic – and fundamental – consensus about what sort of country it should be, or could be," he said, adding that the leaders of Republika Srpska continue to undermine state institutions and repudiate the authority of the HR and the Dayton Agreement.

Milorad Dodik, leader of Republika Srpska, has repeatedly claimed the right of the Bosnian Serbs to self-determination and vigorously opposes any attempt to transfer powers to the central state.

"We said 'no' and we shall say 'no' each time a fundamental position of Republika Srpska has been questioned," Dodik stated during talks on constitutional reform in October last year.

In March 2010, Hido Biščević, secretary-general of the Regional Cooperation Council for South Eastern Europe (RCC), told EurActiv that the political situation in BiH is "extremely worrisome" and appears to be turning into a "dormant frozen conflict".

"Reaching a self-sustainable constitution based on the Dayton Agreement is of crucial importance for durable stability in the entire region," Biščević said.

But he admitted that BiH is no closer to self-sustainability now than it was when the Dayton Agreement was struck 15 years ago.

"It is hard to imagine that neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro can move towards the EU if BiH remains a sort of black hole in the region. I believe that true, durable stability in the Balkans is closely linked with BiH," he said.

"If the situation in BiH remains unresolved, this could open a Pandora's Box and create a pebble effect throughout the Western Balkans. This would be a shameful result of almost 25 years of dealing with the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. The rest Europe would be united, free and democratic but there would be the opening of a new crisis in the Balkans," the RCC secretary-general warned.

Almir Šahović, BiH’s ambassador to France, told EurActiv.fr in April that the EU and NATO are the two key external priorities for his country and that despite political blockages, BiH should be able to apply for EU membership by the end of 2010.

''The EU and NATO are the two priorities of our external policy. We have not yet submitted our EU membership application because of reasons that originate from the difficult starting position of Bosnia and Herzegovina ten or fifteen years ago, compared to the other countries of the region. Since 1995, we have made numerous reforms in the areas ofdefence, taxation and justice," Šahović said.

"But we still haven't managed to complete this process and some issues remain unresolved, such as the redistribution of state property between the central state and the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina," he added.

"Moreover, the closure of the Office of the High Representative requires a reform of the constitution. All political players agree on the need for constitutional change, but there is disagreement on how to change it. This is why our membership application process has slowed recently, " Šahović continued. 

"However, we signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) two years ago and the authorities are continuing to make progress in the adoption of the acquis communautaire without waiting for the official membership application, as we do not want to be behind ourneighbours who have already submitted theirs. I think that by the end of this year, the conditions will be sufficient for Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply for membership. I am very optimistic about our ability to make up this small delay,'' he concluded. 

UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Security Council (UNSC) Sir Mark Lyall Grant expressed concern over plans to hold a referendum in Republika Srpska challenging the legitimacy of the HR/EU Special Representative's decisions.

"The European Union has made clear that a membership application from Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be considered while the Office of the High Representative remains in place. It is therefore essential that Bosnian leaders work constructively together to deliver the remaining objectives and conditions which remain necessary for transition of the Office of the High Representative to take place," the British diplomat said.

US Alternate Representative for Special Political Affairs to the UN Security Council Ambassador Brooke D. Anderson echoed the concerns about the political atmosphere and challenges to the HR’s authority.

"As we approach the October 2010 national elections, we are concerned that divisive and damaging political rhetoric may threaten regional reconciliation efforts, undermine progress on the country's Euro-Atlantic agenda, and distract attention from real national priorities. It's simply unacceptable to propose or speculate about the dissolution of the state - even a peaceful dissolution," the US diplomat stated.

According to Jan Havránek, an expert on security issues and a research fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), BiH must improve its legal system as reforms simply fail due to corruption – but the EU should not give up on the country.

''It sounds like a cliché, but BiH needs to upgrade its judicial and legal system and fight corruption. Since 2008, when BiH received plans to liberalise its visa regime with the EU, the problem of corruption still persists. Any governmental reforms fail because of corruption,'' he stated.

''Moreover, BiH needs to harmonise two different legal systems within one state and improve cooperation between the two entities […] Politicians must understand that their country needs reforms not because of EU accession, but because it is in the interests of BiH and its citizens,'' said Havránek.

''BiH is losing its argument for EU membership but at the same time, the EU should not turn away. From this point of view, it is important that NATO launched its Action Plan for BiH which represents the first step towards full membership. We should wait for the results of the general election – scheduled for this autumn [October 2010] – to see what they indicate for the future development of the country,'' he added.

In a March paper for the European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), Bart M.J. Szewczyk, senior associate at WilmerHale in Washington, DC, argues that the EU needs to exercise greater leverage and commit more resources in BiH if its strategy is to be successful.

''A reinvigorated strategy for success in Bosnia will demand greater EU leverage through increased resource commitments in terms of EUFOR troops, EUSR staff, and EU money. EU influence has decreased over the past few years and needs to be restored, since the attractive power of EU accession has proven insufficient on its own as political glue in Bosnia," Szewczyk said. 

"The political decision to commit the necessary resources and increase EU leverage will not be taken, however, unless the EU recognises its significant interests in Bosnia: preventing the need for future humanitarian intervention by keeping the peace, consolidating Bosnia's democratic development and foreclosing the emergence of a criminal state or terrorist safe haven, enlarging (and thereby further validating) the European model of governance, and demonstrating the credibility of EU foreign policy,'' he added. 

Timeline

  • 1991: Break-up of Yugoslavia begins.
  • 1992-95: Bosnian war. The conflict claims a total of 100,000 lives.
  • July 1995: Massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by the army of Republika Srpska under command of General Ratko Mladic in UN 'safe area' of Srebrenica.
  • Aug-Sep. 1995: NATO bombing campaign against army of Republika Srpska.
  • Dec. 1995: Dayton Agreement signed with international mediation brings an end to the war and establishes current constitution and geopolitical structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
  • 1999: EU proposes new Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for five countries in South Eastern Europe, including BiH.
  • June 2000: Feira European Council states that all SAP countries are 'potential candidates' for EU membership.
  • Nov. 2000: Zagreb summit begins SAP for BiH.
  • 1 Jan. 2003: European Union Police Mission (EUPM) in BiH launched – the EU's first mission under the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
  • June 2003: Thessaloniki Summit confirms that SAP countries may join EU once they are ready for membership.
  • 2 Dec. 2004: EU military force (EUFOR/Operation ALTHEA) deployed to BiH to replace NATO's SFOR peacekeeping mission.
  • 25 Nov. 2005: Negotiations on Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between EU and BiH officially opened.
  • July 2007: Miroslav Lajčák becomes new High Representative/EU Special Representative in BiH.
  • 1 Jan. 2008: EU opens door to a visa facilitation agreement with BiH.
  • 16 Apr. 2008: BiH parliament approves police reform plan, a key EU demand for the SAA.
  • June 2008: Commission presents roadmap identifying benchmarks for visa liberalisation for citizens of BiH.
  • 16 June 2008: SAA enters into force.
  • 31 July 2008: BiH and European Commission sign financing agreement for Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA).
  • 26 Mar. 2009: Valentin Inzko becomes new High Representative/EU Special Representative in BiH.
  • 20 Mar. 2010: EU-Balkans summit held in Brdo, Slovenia. Serbian President Boris Tadić does not attend due to presence of Kosovo leader Hasim Thaçi.
  • 22 Apr. 2010: NATO adds BiH to its pre-accession Membership Action Programme.
  • 2 June 2010: Another EU-Balkans summit to be held in Sarajevo, the capital of BiH.
  • 2 June 2010: Commission proposal on visa liberalisation.
  • Oct. 2010: General elections in BiH.